Can you benefit from a massage? Are you human? If so, yes! That’s not to say animals can’t benefit too, which they do. Robots, maybe not. But let’s focus on humans here (despite the dog photo).
Most people may associate massage with relaxation. To get that feel-good factor. Some people will have sought massage treatment due to pain and will hopefully have experienced pain relief as a benefit (which could come from a relaxing massage). These are good benefits indeed, but there’s a lot more to it, which we’ll delve into below.
Most of this is written from a Holistic Massage lens, but this builds on a rich history that’s been traced back to at least 3000 years BC from Egyptian illustrations and Chinese texts, and was an important part of the ancient Greek and Roman cultures. Hippocrates wrote about the benefits of massages in the 5th century BC, arguing that doctors should know how to massage for healing purposes. Let’s fast-forward to the 21st century and let’s look at some of these benefits!
Relaxation and stress release
Relaxation is a good place to start because the knock-on effects in the body are quite astonishing. I also want to start with relaxation because it’s something that some people dismiss the importance of and don’t realise there are significant health benefits to be had. So I think it’s worth putting a spotlight on it.
The benefits of a relaxing massage are largely the effects of the nervous system on the many systems of our body. A typical “western” lifestyle is, unfortunately, detrimental to health. I’ve already touched on this with regards to sitting too much in this blog. Stress is another issue.
It’s important to note that stress comes in many flavours and it may not always be what you think of as stress. Just doing something all the time, driving to and from work, being in “go go go” mode has much the same effect on your body as if somebody threatens you. Essentially, the body runs in a sympathetic nervous system state, which is associated with “fight, flight or freeze”.
Won’t delve into too much detail here, but when the body is in a sympathetic nervous system state, it shuts down systems not considered essential, like the digestive and urinary system. But also the immune system is affected. So, in short, your body won’t be able to process and extract nutrients from your food very well and will struggle to fight intruders making you ill. Therefore, I certainly think that getting these back online is quite important. Don’t you?
By taking time out for a relaxing massage, the body is helped into a parasympathetic state, which is often nick-named “rest and digest”. So, if your tummy starts rumbling during a massage, that’s nothing to be ashamed about. It’s a great sign!
As mental stress also manifests as physical stress and tension, helping relax and reduce stress may also directly help muscles relax. In other words, helping letting go of tension, which may give pain relief and other benefits we’ll get into further below.
Also, on the subject of pain, a hard sports-therapy type of massage treatment is not necessarily the answer. One can’t make general statements here, but worth noting that I’ve had several clients who have commented on feeling better after a Holistic Massage because they were able to relax much better (physically and mentally).
Feeling of wellbeing
A relaxing massage can give a great sense of wellbeing from the reasons discussed above. But also because of the effect on the endocrine system. Yes, hormones. And this works very much together with the nervous system and affects the whole body.
When research is conducted to determine the clinical effects of hands-on treatment, there should be a control group to help account for the healing effects observed by simply touching another human being. This is because it helps release hormones such as endorphins and oxytocin.
You may have heard of endorphins being called “natural morphine”? That’s because it helps reduce pain by inhibiting the transmission of pain signals. In addition, endorphins can give a sense of euphoria/pleasure.
Oxytocin is sometimes called the “love hormone”. It is associated with many things, and seems to still be researched to fully understand it’s effect. But here’s a few things it’s been linked to (Weber, 2017): bonding between parents and children, emotional health (reducing anxiety) and prosocial behaviour (trust, empathy and altruism).
Improve sport performance and recovery
Having talked about the effects of a relaxing massage, let’s talk a bit about the effects of a stimulating massage. This is useful for people who like to feel more energetic or wanting to prepare the body for a sporting event. In Holistic Massage, there are several massage techniques to stimulate the muscle tissues and, ultimately, also the nervous system.
For example, a massage treatment helps clear the motor end plates that connect motor nerves to muscles, so that communication between the central nervous system (brain and spine) and the muscles is improved. Faster reaction times could be handy, no?
Holistic Massage works consciously with the circulatory system, so blood flow may be improved. Improved blood circulation leads to more efficient and effective delivery of oxygen and nutrients throughout your body. In turn, this leads to improvements in muscle performance and a reduction in the build-up of lactic acid (which essentially builds up if the body is unable to deliver enough oxygen to the muscles).
Deeper massage moves also help the body recover from sport/exercise by releasing and shifting lactic acid and other toxins. Most Holistic Massage movements are performed in the direction of the venous (circulation) and lymphatic system to help the body eliminate waste products. As such, the immune system is also helped, as it works along-side the lymphatic system.
We have already talked about how a massage leads to endorphins being released, which help provide pain relief. But there’s more to the story. The most obvious is perhaps the physical release of tension in muscles via the massage moves performed. This, in turn, leads to improved joint mobility, so joint pain may be reduced. Further, research suggests that massage helps reduce inflammation in the body, though large scale studies seem to be lacking (hfe).
We already touched on this above; releasing muscle tension helps joint mobility. Also, a massage treatment may help remove adhesions between muscles, so that they can glide more effectively across each other. As such, you may feel more supple after a massage treatment. You may be moving better, which, in turn, help reduce the risk of injury, falls, etc.
In the same vein as the above two points. You may have had tense muscles pulling on your skeleton awkwardly, especially along your spine. A massage treatment can help with the alignment of your body, so you benefit from an improved posture. You may feel like you’re standing taller. And, as a result, you may benefit from even greater pain relief as well as a general sense of wellbeing.
Also worth noting here that compression in the spine can affect the nervous system. I have touched on this in a previous blog post, with a short example of the effects of the Phrenic Nerve (originating in the neck) on your core stability and ability to breathe properly.
Improved muscle and skin tone
Some massage techniques are stimulating, as we have touched on above. Not only does this have an invigorating effect; it helps improve both muscle and skin tone. This is achieved by helping break down fat, improving blood circulation, improving metabolism, improving muscle contractibility and simulating collagen production.
Improved cognitive ability
Back to the nervous system. But, really, this one is mostly about the circulation system. Confused? Bear with me..
We have already discussed how a Holistic Massage works with the circulation and lymphatic system. We stimulate the circulation system so that nutrients are delivered more effectively and waste products are eliminated more effectively. In other words, more oxygen to the brain, which it so sorely needs to do all that clever stuff!
Improved immune function
This has already been covered, but I figured it was worth a heading on its own!
Immune function is improved by several things. For example, by helping the body relax and go into a parasympathetic nervous system state, it can perform its immune system functions better. Also, it is helped by the massage treatment working with the lymphatic system.
Lymph nodes are important checkpoints where lymphocytes and macrophages detect and respond to foreign cells (intruders). The lymphocytes may trigger the general immune system if needed, if the macrophages can’t deal with the intruders themselves. The lymphatic system also helps mop of blood that escapes the circulation system and eliminates waste products.
Improved digestive function
As discussed at the very start of this post, a general massage can help the body relax so that it can go into a parasympathetic nervous system state. This will activate the digestive system (among other systems, as we’ve discussed). One direct result is that the massage helps trigger peristalsis, so waste can be eliminated from your bowels.
If you have conditions like Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), you can probably relate to how sensitive the digestive system can be to your emotional state. So relaxing may just help the general function of your stomach, small and large intestines breaking down food, extracting nutrients and eliminating waste. You may also find abdominal pains are alleviated.
Abdominal massage also helps flatulence and constipation.
Improved breathing (respiratory function)
By improving the circulatory (blood) system, both delivery and removal of nutrients and waste products is improved. Also, muscles may have been restricting breathing by being tight, and a massage can improve this by releasing tension around your torso. Further, as discussed briefly in this blog post, if a massage treatment helps resolve compression in the neck impinging the Phrenic nerve, the function of the diaphragm can be improved. There’s a lot more to be said about the diaphragm, but I shall leave it for another blog post.
It’s all connected
Although we talk about different systems of the body, it’s all interconnected. Hopefully that emerges through the examples given in this blog post.
So, in summary, massage treatments have a lot of physical, mental and emotional benefits!